Which school do you want to support?
California's students score below their peers in other states. Can we at least take solace in the quality of our state’s schools relative to the rest of the world?
Two major tests compare the learning of students around the world. According to both of them, American students are not at the head of the class.
Every three years, PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) tests a sample of the 15 year old students in over 70 countries in reading literacy, science and math. (In case you are wondering, "PISA" is pronounced like the name of the leaning tower.) In 2015, among the 35 major developed countries participating, American students scored about average in science and reading and below average in math.
Are these lackluster results new? Well, no. The US has trailed the PISA leaders for a long time. Many of the countries that tend to rock the test are in Asia. The US also routinely scores lower than Canada, Australia, the UK and Germany.
Another international test, TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) also shows US students roughly in the middle of the same pack, well behind many Asian countries and Russia.
What are the differences between TIMSS and PISA? Glad you asked. Broadly, PISA tests tend to emphasize skills by asking students questions that require them to use skills they are meant to have learned. TIMSS, by contrast, tends to emphasize knowledge by asking questions that probe what students do or do not know. Generally, rankings based on the scores on these tests tend to align more than they differ.
Supporters believe we can learn from the success of other nations. One key finding from the recent tests is that countries can achieve both high academic performance and equity in serving students with diverse needs. The OECD report identifies key policies and practices that the USA can learn from other education systems to help all students achieve success. Here's a Cliffs Notes-inspired version:
Note: The links above point to the related lessons in Ed100.
For a deeper dive into international comparisons of education systems, read What America Can Learn about Smart Schools in Other Countries by Amanda Ripley.
The Alliance for Excellent Education notes that the US significantly improved equity in education from 2006 to 2015:
"Specifically, the United States had the largest increase — 12 percentage points — in the percentage of 'resilient' students. These are disadvantaged students who perform better than predicted by their socioeconomic status. Because students from low-income families and students of color make up more than half of all U.S. schoolchildren, continuing to improve the performance of these students is key to the nation’s future success."
Not everyone agrees about the importance of PISA scores. Among the skeptics is education historian and activist Diane Ravitch:
"The more we focus on tests, the more we kill creativity, ingenuity, and the ability to think differently. Students who think differently get lower scores. The more we focus on tests, the more we reward conformity and compliance, getting the right answer... International test scores don’t matter, except to tell us that if we really wanted to raise them, we would reduce poverty."
Some policy experts such as Martin Carnoy of the Stanford Graduate School of Education argue that comparisons among states are more relevant than comparisons with other countries. (This argument should provide no comfort to Californians, as discussed in Ed100 Lesson 1.1.)
Want to make America’s future economy better? Make education work better, for lots of kids.
There's nothing wrong with kids in other countries doing well in school, of course. Education is good for everyone, not just Americans. But the scores are not just of theoretical interest.
Educational achievement drives economic growth, and the PISA test has played an important role in proving it. In a 2010 study of educational attainment and national growth rates, Stanford professor Eric Hanushek found that educational success (as measured by the PISA exam) is impressively predictive of economic growth. Want to make America's future economy better? Make education work better, for lots of kids. If an investment enables kids to learn more successfully, in a way that can be confirmed by scores on the PISA exam, this analysis suggests that it makes sense to invest boldly. Investment in education can eventually pay for itself many times over.
Today, the standing of America’s public schools relative to OECD nations is no longer the international comparison of primary interest. A more interesting question is our nation’s standing relative to China and India, the nations with the world's largest populations.
As China’s middle class grows wealthier, its expectations about employment, income, lifestyle, and educational attainment are increasingly comparable to American expectations. The story is similar in India, and everywhere else. When it comes to educational opportunity the world is growing flatter.
America’s universities are a source of economic strength, and they attract talent from all over the world. But they are far smaller than the universities in China and India. In the long run, there is nothing inevitable about America's leadership in this area.
China's universities already educate far more students than America's do. In time, some of America’s best and brightest will be attracted to research universities in China and India, in addition to the other way around.
As the college-going population expands in China and India, pressures are mounting for those countries to develop research universities of global caliber. China's universities already educate far more students than America's do. In a knowledge economy, top talent drives growth. America’s unique position as the global center for higher education is not fated to last forever. In time, some of America’s best and brightest will be attracted to research universities in China and India, in addition to the other way around.
The next lesson examines the cause of the strong connection between successful education and a successful economy. The nature of work has changed.
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